What does it really mean to be a sovereign individual?

Golfing recently with a good friend, we got to chatting about sovereign individuals.i He’d recently returned from the Bitcoin Miami conpherence, where he’d had an amazing time, so I was keen to pick his brain about the current state of Bitcoin culture. Long story short, it sounds like Bitcoin culture, at least in the mainstream hodler camp, is as stagnant and myopic as it was when I last interfaced with it in 2018. I might’ve guessed as much based on the limited coverage I saw from the event. I mean, if you’re booing Erik Voorhees,ii how badly have you lost the plot?

Needless to say, Bitcoin seems to be losing the culture war – the war for hearts and minds – to, whisper it, Ethereum (and other projects?).iii Bitcoin conpherences have little to offer today but the ra-ra-ra atmosphere of an MMA fight, creating little more than echoes about the tragically-defined notion of “shitcoins,” the ill-defined notion of being a “sovereign individual,” and eating lots of meat.

Contrariwise, non-BTC-centric crypto-conferences are about building.iv Go figure that what initially attracted me to Bitcoin IRC back in the day was not only the intellectual depth of that hallowed forum but also the sense that that was the place where building happened. That scarcely turned out to be true, at least as much as I’d hoped,v but it’s what attracted me to that fringe of fringe worlds. That the current Bitcoin space is focused so intently on anything other than “Vires In Numeris” unless those numbers pertain to “on-chain metrics,” “institutional adoption” (ie. NUMBER GO UP!!!1), and a very ironic mob-mentality at the expense of all critical or creative thinking, tells us everything we need to know about the ability of its participants and adherents to use their noodles, much less create anything of value.vi The primary weakness of the current Bitcoin community, therefore, such as it is in the post-IRC world, is its unbearable predictability, which, ironically, precludes any possibility of individual sovereignty.vii

Don’t believe me? Listen to the artists. Artists don’t lie. Or at least if they do, it’s to expose truths.viii So I’ll now pass the mike over to author Timothy Snyder and painter Luc Tuymans from their recent interview with Lucas Zwirner [emphasis added]:

Lucas Zwirner: The truth seems to be less resonant than the lies, in so many cases.
Timothy Snyder: The thing that strikes me when we focus in on America here is that Americans often think that freedom is about just doing what you feel like and it’s not. That’s the most manipulable thing. What you feel like is the most predictable thing. Freedom has to be about unpredictability.ix Freedom has to be about becoming a person who a machine can’t predict or other people can’t predict, because if you’re predictable, tyranny just becomes a matter of efficiency. So one of the things that I’m interested in is how the digital makes us more predictable so that what people feel like doing is more and more predictable. And it gets us back to the events of January 6th [Capitol Hill Riots/Storming] which were carried out by people that largely had their own views but they were selected by machines basically. The things that they thought, they didn’t see themselves. They were selected by machines as being people who would be vulnerable to this kind of stuff. And more and more of life is like that. And that’s not culture – that’s behaviourism – that’s the worst in us. That’s the stuff in us which is not free. It feels like us – we feel very emotional about it – but there’s nothing personal about it, there’s nothing individual. The word propaganda has been used a lot, but what’s resonant? An echo is resonant, but an echo is not original. If I just cast something out into cyberspace and a lot of people repeat it, or the algorithms repeats it, and it starts to effect behaviour, that’s resonant, but that’s not what’s true. And I think freedom has to do with the truth. I think this is one of the things where Americans have really gone wrong: “freedom is really what I feel like believing right now.” If it’s what you feel like believing right now then there’s always going to be somebody like Mr. Trump who’s really good at making you feel that way.

So what is a sovereign individual? I’d argue that he’s crazy (ie. unpredictable), but more than that he’s a builder.x In a sense, he’s an artist practicing artfulness.xi Simple as that. That doesn’t mean he’s allergic to fiat or vegetables or whatever, it means that he leverages the shit out of the world to create something tangible.xii It could be a software business or a rocket ship or a limerick or something else entirely, that’s not the point. The point is that he’s blessed/cursed with a creative impulse, which is to say an ACTIVE impulse (#buidl) vs. a passive impulse (#hodl). He therefore dances on the fine line between genius and insanity, marching to the beat of his own drum, being his own sort of van Gogh. Having access to capital doesn’t hurt his chances, but he’ll still be a veritable force to be reckoned with no matter whether he has one or ten zeroes in his bank account.xiii

That’s sovereignty. That’s being an individual. Make sense?
___ ___ ___

  1. As you do when you’re playing at the city’s most exclusive private country club.
  2. Before his current work to create DAOesque crypto-exchange ShapeShift.io, Erik ran gambling platform Satoshi Dice, which turned over 500,000 BTC per month back in 2013, and the company stock (S.DICE) was listed on the late great MPEx, from which S.DICE successfully and cleanly delisted after a 120,000 BTC buyout. Anyone got a calculator to figure out the current dollar value of those coin figures? And yes, the current value matters. 
  3. Voorhees is backing THORChain, which is worth paying attention to long-term, despite the recent hiccups.
  4. From Anthony Sassano (archived):

    The other great thing about Ethereum conferences is that you can just feel the culture as you walk around talking to different people. The Ethereum community is made up of people from pretty much every country around the world so you always end up meeting plenty of interesting and fascinating people at these conferences (including lots of people you would never meet or talk to normally). All of these people make up the wonderful Ethereum culture that we all know and love – that is, a culture of inclusivity, diversity, building and decentralization.

    Lastly, because of all of the above, Ethereum conferences have typically been where many of the top projects in the ecosystem have been born out of. This is because these conferences aren’t just a place for people to watch talks and network – they’re also a place for builders to come together and participate in hackathons (particularly with other builders that they normally wouldn’t work with). I’ve judged a few of these hackathons in the past (online via ETHGlobal and offline at EthDenver) and it really is amazing to see how much passion goes into these projects and also how quickly people can build something useful in just a weekend!

    Of course, there’s only so much you can build in a weekend, but the spirit of these events sounds entirely different from what I’ve seen in the Bitcoin space since pretty much San Jose 2013, as corroborated by what my good friend reported back from Miami 2021.

  5. There were, what, a couple hundred TRNGs sold? There should’ve been hundreds of thousands sold. But noooooo “sales and marketing are evil” etc. Oh well. Live and learn, I suppose.
  6. As shocking as this reality is – that Ethereum is where the action is these days – it’s likely still positive-sum for the crypto space in general. Bitcoin’s ossification is still a feature and a bug, providing as it does a bedrock of stability upon which the entire industry can reach for the stars. But a foundation does not a city, nor a world, make. I’ll never be anti-Bitcoin (I don’t think) and I’ll always hold a lot of it (I hope) but identifying with, or even following, its current online community is a giant waste of time at this point. Then again, maybe it always was
  7. “Individual sovereignty” is starting to sound an awful lot like “free will,” innit. Coincidence? Or a post-modern, post-political twist on an eternal debate?
  8. To quote Picasso:

    We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth – at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

  9. AKA “I’m fucking crazy, but I’m free.” Didn’t MP embody this perfectly? Didn’t Margiela? Doesn’t Kanye
  10. For bonus points, the sovereign individual is one who avoids algorithmic capture! How? Reading blogs duh! 
  11. To quote again from Luc and Tim from the same eminently enjoyable conversation [emphasis added]:

    Luc Tuymans: One should be ambiguous about things, which I think is the most important thing about art is that it should never be unambiguous because that’s where it ends up to be propaganda. […]
    Timothy Snyder: Art is the answer. There is no other way to deal with big stories besides art. Art is the only thing which breaks down big stories. That’s what artfulness is. […] Now I want to venture something about Luc’s art, which I like, maybe it has to do with ambiguity, but what I really like is that it’s not about outrage. For me, outrage is the other side of the coin of looking away. So if you’re outraged now, it means that you were looking away then. Your outrage is a way of compensating for the looking away. So once you’ve done the outrage, you’ve done the work, and it’s all over. So outrage isn’t the answer. That shouldn’t be what we’re aiming for. What we should be aiming for is something like understanding. And understanding is sneakier. Understanding has to creep into people. You have to catch them by surprise in some way, and that’s one of the things I mean by “artfulness.”

  12. These days, leverage means using strong cryptography, of course, but that’s not sufficient however necessary it is.
  13. In case you think money====sovereignty, the singular example of Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski is sufficient to invalidate your hypothesis. Yes, and Vincent van Gogh too. 

3 thoughts on “What does it really mean to be a sovereign individual?

  1. Diana Coman says:

    I’m not sure I see that well craziness or even unpredictability as characteristics or even prerequisites of being sovereign. Unpredictability in itself is much more a measure of chaotic behaviour than of any sovereignty and I don’t think the two are equivalent in any way. After all, a trng-obeying person would be quite unpredictable, by definition although dubious if sovereign to any degree.

    It may well be that a sovereign person *appears* unpredictable especially when measured superficially and by difference to some arbitrary outside consensus but that is really more telling about those looking and/or about the consensus chosen. Perhaps it holds only in the very limited sense of “not following the norm unquestioningly” or, more simply put, manifesting some degree of originality. And this in turn, even in the context of “not predictable by a machine”, I’d venture has more to do with variety, complexity and scope than with anything else.

    • Pete D. says:

      Unpredictable building isn’t just behavioural, it’s structural, so perhaps “unscripted builder” would be a more mutually legible understanding of “sovereign.”

      I might struggle to distinguish this definition from Samo Burja’s “live player” but I would in doing so hope to broaden the term slightly, though quite possibly without much success.

  2. […] ended up with an intelligently-designed public mass transit system combined with an entirely-sovereign Uber-alternative called Gett, a half-dozen electric scooter services, and insane new car taxes have […]

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